Tag Archives: Eric McHenry

Poets Laureate of Kansas Call For the Humanities

In the past few weeks, I’ve been working with three other former or current poets laureate of Kansas to craft our statement in support of the Kansan Humanities Council, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. As Wyatt Townley says, “Kansas is a microcosm of the national arts-and-humanities landscape and the plight it faces.” Please do what you can, and pass it on!

Poets Laureate of Kansas

Statement of Support for the Humanities

What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth? It is difficult to quantify the value of the humanities, but we know that investment there yields a big bang for the soul and for the buck. In the current cost-cutting climate, the value—indeed, the very existence—of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been called into question, though it costs the average American 50 cents a year.

 

One local beneficiary of the NEH is the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), with its 45-year track record of strengthening civic life. In 2016, KHC provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of the state. The benefit in terms of education, history, and culture is immeasurable, but the real crop KHC grows is community.

 

KHC’s Poet Laureate of Kansas program, adopted in 2013 from the Kansas Arts Commission, is one of our nation’s 44 state poet laureateships. These programs point to poetry’s ability to explore essential values in an age of distraction. Poetry helps us find common ground and develop greater understanding of our shared home, from the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to the windy high plains.

 

As poets laureate, we’ve crisscrossed the state many times, dodging blizzards and tornados to talk with fellow Kansans about things that matter. We averaged 50 public appearances a year—some at colleges, high schools, and grade schools, but most at small-town libraries and community centers. Anyone who thinks of poetry as elitist should ride along with us to Colby (pop. 5,387), or Kinsley (1,457), or Glasco (498), and see how many farmers, miners, nurses, children, and retirees fill up rooms.

 

Having a poet laureate costs Kansas taxpayers almost nothing (the modest travel stipend we receive is paid for entirely by private donors), but the position could not exist without the tireless support of the Kansas Humanities Council, providing staff and resources to help us reach new audiences, particularly in underserved and isolated areas. KHC supports the state economy, bringing people together—often across great distances—which in turn bolsters hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.

 

Our state poet laureate program has a national reputation for excellence. We have organized conferences that brought dozens of other state poets and hundreds of participants to Kansas. We’ve published regular columns in newspapers statewide and produced award-winning anthologies featuring hundreds of writers for thousands of readers. Our thriving regional literary scene led the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to bring its 2020 conference—one of the biggest writers conferences on Earth, drawing some 13,000 attendees from around the world—to the Kansas City area.

 

We believe in poetry as deep literacy—an experience that engages mind, emotion, body, and spirit. We also believe in Kansas, and the essential work of our superb state humanities council and our national treasure, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please do all you can—contacting legislators especially (https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials)—to ensure their continuation for the good of us all.

 

Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2015-17

Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2013-15

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2009-2013

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2007-09

Thank You, Wyatt, and Hello, Eric!: Everyday Magic, Day 849

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The fabled four (out of five) past and present poets laureate: Denise Low, Eric McHenry, Wyatt Townley, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (photo credit: KHC)

Last night Wyatt Townley, outgoing Kansas Poet Laureate, bonked Eric McHenry, incoming Kansas Poet Laureate, with a sunflower as is our tradition in these parts. Although the Kansas Humanities Council officially launched his term earlier this month, nothing’s official (at least to me) until the sunflower hits the head.

Wyatt’s term, as she told KHC, was full and expansive:

We laughed, we cried, we got chills. We put over 10,000 miles on our 16-year-old van, never breaking down and managing to dodge all blizzards and tornados…..Internally, I found a path from private to public that I could travel, and made new friends along the way. It was all poetry, all the way down.

10408668_649256315179408_3148655472865763695_nOver the last two yeas, Wyatt gave over 70 presentations, helping a myriad of communities explore home from what she calls “the mobile home of the body” all the way to the cosmos as home. She also curated the Homewords project, encouraging Kansans to submit American Cinquains about home as body, house, land, and sky, and out of the submissions, she created columns featured in newspapers around the state. In the end, she featured 105 poems for the 105 counties of Kansas. Here is one of Wyatt’s Cinquains, a form that invites us to write poems five lines long, with two syllables on the first line, four on the second, six on the third, eight on the forth, and two in the final line:

The sky

the silo and

I, a set of nesting

dolls with a surprising poem

inside.

Wyatt’s generous, tender, wise, and deeply contemplative ways inspired many of us not just to start writing Cinquains (my friend Danny has now written hundreds), but to more deeply consider how we dwell here — in community, on the land, within our bodies, as part of the swiftly-changing skies, and of course in poetry. But any gratitude for Wyatt also goes to her partner in crime, First Dude Roderick Townley, himself a very accomplished poet and children’s book author, who accompanied her all over Kansas. Having taken some poetry road trips with both Wyatt and Roderick, I’ve seen firsthand how much his presence and help can turn a crazy challenge into a walk (or drive) in the park.
Now we mosey on forth with our fifth Kansas Poet Laureate, Eric Henry. Here’s one of my favorite poems of Eric’s, published in 150KansasPoems:
Vanguard

Here’s what I remember: Coleman Hawkins

and I are sitting at a mahogany table

in the Village Vanguard, quietly talking.

He’s finished a set in which he was unable

to summon even one unbroken tone

from the bell of his once-clarion saxophone.

But now that’s over and he feels all right.

He’s smoking because he’s wanted to all night,

drinking cloudy cognac from a tumbler

and coughing ferociously; his voice is weaker

than his cough; he’s barely audible, mumbling

to me because he knows I’m from Topeka.

He says, “That’s where I learned to tongue my horn.”

I know, and that’s the only thing I hear.

It’s 1969; in half a year

he’ll be dead. In three years I’ll be born.

A professor at Washburn University, and a poet published far and wide, Eric recently told the Kansas Humanities Council:

There’s nothing I love more than sharing poetry with people, and I look forward to doing that in every corner of Kansas over the next two years. I think we’re all grateful when we encounter language that’s equal to life’s richness and complexity. Poetry can provide that.Eric_BW_headshot

Listening to Eric recite poems he memorized — something he does frequently to show us the value of getting that language into our bodies and psyches — I have no doubt that he will shine the light on a lot of poetry — and moreover, what poetry can do to spark magic and insight — throughout and beyond his poet laureate term.

So thank you for the wild, beautiful, and vivid road trip through poetry, Wyatt! And Eric, we’re now riding shotgun with you for where you take us.